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High and dry

By Carolyn Oxlee

The “ecological illiteracy of a whole generation” says scientist Kabulov Saparbey, has shrunk the Aral Sea to half its size and one-quarter of its volume since the 1960s. Three million hectares of desert seabed now lie where once there was water. The International Federation and the National Societies in the region try to put the human cost of this environmental catastrophe on the international agenda.

A silver-coloured statue of a fisherman proudly holding a sturgeon bears testament to Muynak’s past. Its fish factory used to produce caviar for the Soviet government. Those were the days when Muynak was a lively fishing town on the southern coast of the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan. But the water is long gone – as far as the eye can see is sandy desert and green scrub. Younger generations of people have never even seen the sea.


A man-made disaster

The Aral Sea, remote and now inaccessible, is fed by the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers, but depends on all five central Asian countries to continually replenish its water supply: Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, which surround the sea, Turkmenistan, which shares the Amu Darya river with Uzbekistan for irrigation, and Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, home to the mountains where the rivers that feed the sea have their source.

During Soviet rule, these rivers were bled dry by massive irrigation networks, mainly needed for cotton production. At the same time, fertilizers and pesticides, used to force up crops from increasingly saline soil, fed into the rivers of the Aral Sea heavily polluting the drinking water of downstream towns.

It was a deliberate action. With their focus on producing enough cotton to feed a growing textile industry, Soviet planners knew their strategy would ultimately dry up the sea. Today, the Aral Sea is a harsh lesson in what happens when you interfere with Mother Nature. The summers are now hotter, the winters colder. Plants and trees have disappeared. Fish can no longer survive in what is left of the sea because it has become too saline. Salty dust storms whipped up from the sea-bed blow for hundreds of kilometres.

“It’s only the beginning of the catastrophe,” says Kabulov Saparbey, head of plants and ecology at the Academy of Science in Nukus, Uzbekistan. “The sea could disappear completely in the next 10 to 12 years because of evaporation if we do not increase the water flow. This would create a new desert and bring a climate with greater extremes of temperature.”

The human consequences

“The suffering of the people in the region is widespread but complex. Complex because the ill health,
deformities in newborn children, high rates of cancer and a bewildering array of health problems caused by toxic water bearing almost every known form of pollution, is so extensive,” explains Federation head of regional delegation Bob McKerrow. “In addition chest, eye, ear and skin infections are caused by the huge salt and dust clouds.”

The human toll is most pronounced among pregnant women and newborn babies. High levels of anaemia among women cause miscarriages and sick babies, born underweight or with deformities. In the maternity ward of Kazalins Hospital in the Kazakh Aral Sea zone, Aygul Akpanova, 23, has just given birth to a daughter whose feet bend inwards. “I felt tired and dizzy throughout my pregnancy,” she says. A high level of poverty and malnutrition in the region exacerbates the health problems. Many people are surviving on bread, vegetables and tea. Anaemia is caused by a poor diet. Tuberculosis – a disease that thrives in poor social conditions – is higher in the Aral Sea zone than elsewhere in the region. At the tuberculosis centre in Kungrad, south of Muynak, several adults admitted this year weighed less than 30 kg.

In Almaty, the former capital of Kazakhstan, the government runs a programme for sick children from the Aral Sea zone. Children come to Almaty children’s hospital for one month of medical treatment, clean water and nutritious food. Almost all of them suffer from gastro-intestinal and respiratory diseases. The Kazak Red Crescent and Red Cross (KRCRC) supplies the hospital with donations of blankets, bedlinen, hygiene kits and medical equipment.

Those born after the 1970s have never known clean drinking water, dependent on the now salty and polluted waters of the Aral Sea rivers. In Aralsk, a former port on the Kazak coast, now more than 50 km from the sea, clean drinking water is trucked in, but not regularly, and the transport has to be paid for by the villagers.

But the sea alone is not to blame for many of the problems facing the inhabitants of the Aral Sea region. The economic and financial lifeline of all five central Asian countries was severed when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, leaving inhabitants with inadequate industry, unemployment and unpaid salaries. Even those who have a job today are not all being paid.

“We live like dogs,” says Seretbai Tulegenov of Muynak.
“I haven’t been paid for seven months. I have seven children, only one of my sons has found a job. There’s no work here,” he says.


Struggling to help

“It’s not our business to solve the ecological problems. We should help people to obtain a good standard of living. Our priorities are to improve health care, food and nutrition,” says Oktamhon Vakhidova, chairperson of the Uzbek Red Crescent. But donors seem to shrug their shoulders at the mention of the Aral Sea disaster – perhaps because it is so difficult to reach, or that so many other crises demand their attention and money.

“We are fighting to get donors’ interest in the problems of this region, but so far with limited success,” says Bob McKerrow. Despite a poor response to an appeal for funds in 1998, the Federation is working towards establishing food projects for children in institutions and pregnant women, and also to revitalize visiting-nurses programmes that assist the elderly and people with disabilities.

Going against the tide, the American Red Cross responded to the call for help and sent an evaluation team to the Aral Sea. It hopes to start a nutritional programme at the end of this year, but this is dependent on the application for support made to the US government.

The Red Cross Red Crescent capacity to help people so far has been limited because its structures are weak, and Societies are in embryo stages of development since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The KRCRC local committee is recruiting volunteers to assist elderly and disabled people and multi-children families with shopping and cleaning. It plans to teach first aid to 50 social welfare officers. In Uzbekistan, Red Crescent visiting nurses help more than 500 elderly and disabled people. “We’ve just conducted a vulnerability survey of 600 families which found that people lack clothes and shoes, and don’t have enough food or clean water. We’d like to help with all this, but we don’t have any money,” says regional chairwoman Abadan Bazarbaeva. With few local industries and widespread unemployment, local fund-raising is difficult.
Even the United Nations Development Programme has been disappointed by lack of donor interest in its programme to coordinate non-governmental organizations activities to rehabilitate the economic, social and health needs of the people.

Between hope and despair

“We need the sea back,” is a frequent plea. Many of the people of Muynak and Aralsk can only look back, and see no other future. Over the years, scientists and politicans have had wild plans to refill the sea, by blowing up the mountains where the water originates, diverting water from rivers in Siberia or digging a channel from the Caspian Sea, more than 400 km to the west.

However, there is some hope for the people of Aralsk. A dam built in 1992 has separated a small sea from the main body of water. The water level is rising in this small sea and it is supporting fish. A Danish organization is working with local fisherman to train them in breeding and marketing flounder, a flat fish, and the only one that can survive in the now salty waters.

There is optimism in both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan that exploration for oil and gas reserves may result in new industries. A more immediate alternative is a developing cattle business. Local authorities in the Kazak Aral Sea zone are trying to stimulate small- and medium-sized businesses, such as carpet industries and soft drinks factories.

Ultimately, the future of the region depends on the people, their ability to adapt to new industries and the will and funds of governments to improve water supplies and nutrition. “God cannot reverse what God has not done. This sea dried up because of man, so only man can put it right,” says Kabulov Saparbey.


Carolyn Oxlee
Carolyn Oxlee is an editorial officer in the Federation’s publications service.

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